The Herald News Editorial: Recognize the Mashpee Wampanoag Tribe
The federal government’s history in terms of its treatment of Indian tribes is replete with betrayals, deceptions, even genocide of the indigenous peoples who inhabited this continent long before European colonists decided they would claim it as their own.
Earlier this month, the Trump administration continued to build on this litany of injustice by essentially revoking the official recognition of land taken in trust for the Mashpee Wampanoag that had been granted by the Obama administration two years ago. It is now incumbent on federal lawmakers to do right by the tribe and re-grant them the ability to have their lands held in trust.
The U.S. Interior Department issued a ruling in connection with a 2016 case brought by a group of residents in Taunton who own property bordering land on which the tribe hopes to build a casino. The neighbors argued that the tribe was not under federal jurisdiction in 1934, the year the Indian Reorganization Act was passed. As such, the Mashpee Wampanoag did not qualify as “Indian” under the federal definition of the term. A federal judge agreed, and for the past two years, the Interior Department has mulled whether the commonwealth of Massachusetts had essentially served as a surrogate for the federal government in terms of oversight of the tribe during that period.
The tribe got its long-awaited letter from the agency on Sept. 7, but it was far from the answer it had hoped to receive. Tara Sweeney, assistant secretary of Indian Affairs, wrote that Massachusetts’ authority did not constitute federal authority and, as a result, ”...the Tribe does not qualify under the IRA’s first definition of ‘Indian.’ Nor does it qualify under the second definition, as that definition has been interpreted by the United States District Court for the District of Massachusetts.”
The notion that the Mashpee Wampanoag are not Indians under any definition of the word is laughable, if so much were not at stake. The tribe has inhabited this region for millennia, despite efforts to crush its customs, its language, and its way of life. Interpreting the phrase “under federal jurisdiction” in the most restrictive way possible negates the legitimacy of an entire people, and should be an affront to anyone who values both fairness and the rule of law.
Some federal Indian law experts have suggested that the Interior Department cannot arbitrarily remove any lands from trust until such time as Congress has voted on the matter. Others have called the move “unprecedented,” saying it turns decades of federal policy on its head.
Absent Congress overturning Interior’s decision, the tribe still has one route open to it, but it remains tenuous at best. U.S. Rep. William Keating, D-Mass., has filed legislation in the House to reaffirm the Obama-era ruling that recognized the tribe. A similar measure has been introduced in the Senate. If passed, the law would not only put an end to the current dispute; it would shield the tribe from any future efforts to challenge its legitimacy.
Mashpee Wampanoag Tribal Chairman Cedric Cromwell responded to the news, alleging that a competing casino developer, Neil Bluhm, had helped fund the neighbors’ lawsuit in part to help bolster his chances to open a casino in Brockton. Cromwell said he held out hope that justice would prevail: “I am asking people of good will and all those concerned with justice for the indigenous people of this land – the first Americans – to stand with us in calling on Congress to protect our reservation and ensure we don’t become the first Tribe since the dark days of the Termination Era to lose its land.”
We agree. Congress has a unique opportunity, after centuries of false promises and outright lies, to act in a manner befitting of a nation that claims to value justice above all else. The Mashpee Wampanoag must be recognized and its lands placed back in trust.